Resignation of top Biden scientific advisor is just another example of the toxic workplace culture plaguing academia, activists say

Eric Lander
Eric Lander.AP Photo/Matt Slocum
  • Eric Lander announced his resignation Monday after an investigation found he bullied subordinates.

  • Biden pledged to fire bullies "on the spot," but Lander was allowed to announce his resignation.

  • Activists told Insider this approach is endemic in academia's toxic workplace culture.

At the start of his presidency, Joe Biden pledged to fire anyone who bullied at his White House "on the spot," with "no ifs, ands or buts."

Yet Eric Lander, who served as his top scientific advisor, was allowed to announce his resignation and given a send-off after an two-month investigation found that he mistreated and bullied subordinates.

"The President accepted Dr. Eric Lander's resignation letter this evening with gratitude for his work at [the Office of Science and Technology Policy] on the pandemic, the Cancer Moonshot, climate change, and other key priorities," Psaki said. "He knows that Dr. Lander will continue to make important contributions to the scientific community in the years ahead."

Rachel Wallace, Lander's former general counsel and one of the first people to accuse Lander, told Politico that he "retaliated against staff for speaking out," called them names, laughed at them, took away their duties, or drove them out of the agency.

"Numerous women have been left in tears, traumatized, and feeling vulnerable and isolated," Wallace told the outlet.

The way the Biden White House handled Eric Lander's investigation and departure is symptomatic of a wider epidemic in scientific circles that allow people to move on gracefully from accusations of misconduct, with little consequences for their careers, activists told Insider.

"It's unfolded in a way that I think most scientists and indeed academics involved in any form of activism around bullying and harassment will recognize," said Emma Chapman, an astrophysicist and a former codirector of 1752, a group researching staff misconduct in higher education.

Academia is rife with such allegations. A survey of 6,000 PhD students across the world by Nature News, conducted in 2019, found that one in five experienced bullying, while nearly 60% said they feared repercussion if they spoke out.

Chapman says it is common for instances of misconduct, such as bullying or sexual misconduct, to go unpunished in academia — allowing perpetrators to have successful careers in spite of allegations.

Before becoming an activist, Chapman was herself the victim of misconduct — in this instance, sexual harassmentfrom a male employee at her university. But she refused to sign an NDA about the incident under pressure from her university, a practice that she says is widespread.

This allows for a practice Chapman refers to as "pass the perpetrator."

"The opportunity to resign gracefully opportunity to go ahead into their community without a negative reference, this is standard in our community," she said.

Morteza Mahmoudi, founder and director of the Academic Parity Movement, told Insider that silencing misconduct accusations both harms victims and helps perpetrators.

"Many of those [perpetrators] basically remain in their situation" after misconduct investigations, he said. "Nothing happens to them."

On the other hand, "targets [of misconduct] are basically forced to change their workplaces, their labs, or their institutions. All of the signals are basically helping the perpetrators to survive because other perpetrators see that nothing happens," he said.

In Lander's case, Mahmoudi applauded the White House for making the investigation public and not sweeping it under the carpet.

But for Chapman, this is not enough.

"We have a resignation after pressure, which is still surrounded by silence in terms of full understanding of what happened," she said.

And referring to Rachel Wallace, one of Lander's first accusers, Chapman said: "Once again, we have one of the victims, a woman, having to come forward and expose one of the most painful periods of her life."

Read the original article on Business Insider